The tragedy of the fire at Notre Dame just before Easter was a real catastrophe. I first heard about it while at a glass shop getting a car window replaced. A kind lady asked me if I’d heard the news. Just from the question, I knew something horrible must have occurred. And then she showed me the footage of the spire collapsing.
I was grateful to her. Getting the news in public softened the blow. But that evening, watching the news, I wept, and I have wept several times since.
Why? The immediate French reaction is understandable — they have immense national pride in that spectacular pile of stone and all the history it has endured. But I’m not French, nor have I ever been to Paris. The only thing I know about the building is what I have read or seen onscreen. Yet I — and millions of others around the world — wept over the disaster.
Partly because it is because of the sheer genius of the Gothic style. Gothic was a real architectural revolution, and it was born right next to Notre Dame in the beautiful little jewel called Sainte Chapelle. The Gothic style of the High Middle Ages was based on one idea, and one idea only: light. To build a great, airy space full of light, they built huge windows in the walls filled with colored glass telling stories, the pointed arches allowing maximum window space. To support the thin walls they used massive piers and invented flying buttresses to support the extra stories.
Earlier Dark Age churches — built in the primitive Romanesque style that survived the fall of the Empire were massive, low, thick-walled and dark. Their windows were tiny, barely more than slits for archers and were sometimes used as such. Doors were often so low that people would have to bow down to enter. This was not to ensure reverence but safety. Such were the brutal times they lived in.
Gothic cathedrals reflected a more stable and confident, if not exactly peaceful, era. But why the obsession with light? Because light, as the very first thing created by God, was closest to Him. But that’s not the only reason. A deeper reason is to be found in a genuine esoteric truth: Every true temple is an abstract representation of the human body. Greco-Roman, Egyptian, Babylonian, Hindu, Chinese… all cultures seem to build their temples in this way, though often it is very difficult to determine what the exact correspondences were. Probably one of the most obvious was the Temple of Solomon, from which the Gothic cathedrals derived many of their sacred dimensions.
As such, real, living Temples are literally built around their heart, which invariably houses a Sacred Mystery or Deity of some kind. This Mystery varies, of course, from religion to religion but it’s always there, quietly humming away 24/7 like a nuclear reactor.
The site of Notre Dame had long been sacred to the Divine Feminine since before the Druids. And when the Franks and the remaining Romanized Gauls heard the Christian version of the story of the Virgin’s Son who gave his life for all, they were so moved that they threw up that magnificently-balance confection of stone and glass in Her honor. It is that still-vibrant Sacred Mystery which the inferno assaulted.
Even as the fire raged, several French millionaires volunteered funds for rebuilding. American tech giants Apple and Disney and even gaming developer Ubisoft have all pledged to help, and uncounted numbers of simple folk will probably join them. There has been a predictable backlash of course, what with the social problems of homelessness and a hostile, isolated Muslim immigrant minority that France faces. I know some clergy abuse survivors who instantly suspected a wicked scam by the Church to gain sympathy and rebuilding funds that were unavailable to them before.
They may have a point. And the capture of a copycat arsonist points at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York (who had also booked a room in a hotel near the Vatican) shows that in this world, anything’s possible, and no one knows the depth of evil hiding in plain sight. I do not believe the fire was set deliberately. That doesn’t mean I reject any conspiracy theory outright, I just want evidence. I hope they put someone like Hercule Poirot in charge – rather than Clouseau – on the case.
If the fire wasn’t caused by man, but an “accident” — most likely caused by a spark from some tool being used on the roof — that means it is effectively an Act of God.
What would that mean, coming during Holy Week?
Could it be divine judgment and chastisement right out of the Old Testament for the sins of the Church, specifically God’s wrath aroused by the clergy abuse crisis?
Was the Vatican world summit in February that was supposed to decisively put reforms into place but did nothing the last straw? Was it for all the destruction of records, cover-ups, nun-rapes, kiddy-buggering priests and the absolute failure of the bishops in France (and everywhere else) to act as true shepherds rather than as mob bosses? For the noticeable lack of repentance among the clergy or leadership by the pope?
Or maybe God’s just pissed because there’s twe popes, one who quit because he couldn’t handle it (yet still sticks his theological nose into it) and his successor, who appears to be equally unable to to take decisive action?
I sure as hell don’t know. But since it seems to me that if nobody in the Catholic Church is even asking these questions only makes it seem more likely.
Notre Dame will shine again, of that I have no doubt, but maybe not in the time remaining to me. I must content myself with building an elaborate cardboard model. It has been the most enjoyable model-building project I’ve ever worked on, and there’s no model glue or paint involved. Just a taste of the glory the French have found there in the Sacred Mystery of Notre Dame de Paris.
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